AMATEUR'S GUIDE TO PHOTOGRAPHY: TAKING BETTER PHOTOS

AMATEUR'S GUIDE TO PHOTOGRAPHY: TAKING BETTER PHOTOS

So you've got a camera - yay! Now, how do you take good photos? 

There is no definitive rulebook to good photos but just like in any creative pursuit, there are some basic principles that you should know so that when you do bend or break the rules, you're doing it with knowledge of exactly what you're doing. Picasso once painted like this -- Cubism was a choice, not because he couldn't do anything else. 

Disclaimer: I am largely self-taught photographer and these are general tips gleaned from personal experience, not expert opinions. Always happy to learn more - leave me a comment if you have things to add!  

Most of these photos were taken at the H Influencers Instameet last weekend, aka. the first time I've been to Manly in probably more than half a decade - thanks for letting me take your photos, @neon.syrup, @misstostarica, @giftoftwentyfour and @mar.che~


BASICS

  • Focus and sharpen your photos

  • Always zoom in to check you've gotten the focus right and sharpen your photos before sharing on Instagram or the web to increase clarity. The back of your camera can be misleading about whether you’re in focus or just a bit off, so always use the electronic zoom to check.

  • Go for your second idea

  • Usually, your instinct is to take the most predictable/obvious version of a photo first when you encounter a subject. Listen to it, then think again. Try a different angle, zoom in or out more than you normally would and even just walk around the damn thing like Klaus Frahm

  • Line your horizon

  • Make sure your ground is straight and use any straight vertical line (a wall, a pole in the background) as reference. If you're going to shoot at a diagonal, make sure it looks intentional, and not just that you've forgotten to straighten your images

  • Your camera is not a machine gun

  • If your style of photography is to throw out a 'Hail Mary' ad then take 100 photos at burst mode, reconsider. Check your settings, then shoot a few times and check again.

    • If your settings aren't right (shutter speed too slow, focus off, overexposed photos), 99% of what you shot is pretty much useless and you waste time trying to find a needle in a haystack

Communicate! 

A large part of achieving a good portrait is communication and direction. I’ll often see photographers just point their camera at the model and start snapping away in silence. If you've ever been the model on the receiving end, you'll know how uncomfortable that can be.

Practise becoming comfortable with giving specific instructions - ‘tilt your head to the right a little more, hold that pose for me, can you move two steps to your left’ - and also giving feedback (‘that angle is really good, just hold it there for me’). Models often appreciate seeing the photos off the back of your camera periodically - especially if you see them doing something well.

If your model looks or is doing great, TELL THEM. I often babble random stuff like 'YOU'RE SO GORGEOUS SWEETIE' and that often helps the model laugh and relax, which always makes for better photos. Sometimes I do a fake countdown because people tense up sometimes on a proper countdown, and then snap after they start laughing. 

Learn to recognise when your model is nervous or unsure of what to do and give feedback when they're doing something right. Sometimes the best moments aren't 100% perfect. 

  • Train your eye

  • Developing a 'sense' for good or bad photos is essential. Practice by shooting regularly, even on your phone, and 'photo potentials' I spot in daily life, usually architecture. They don't get posted (several aren't even edited) but it's good to train your eye to recognise potential and 'lines' when you see one

Above (left to right): hard light, backlit golden hour light, soft light and silhouette in low light


LIGHTING

Photography is essentially painting with light and lighting will make or break your photo. Wenjie Zhang does a great breakdown here and Andrew Gibson runs through different types of natural light here. This is a super helpful guide to studio portrait lighting.

Use natural light to start

Natural light is free, albeit uncontrollable, and the best way to start out. Learn to tell the difference between hard light and soft light, understand how the direction of the light affects the object being lit, and the impact it has on the mood. If you want the 'golden hour' glow, be prepared to either get up really early or stay out as the sun goes down.

Avoid your phone flash and auto camera flash

Phones and automatic camera flash without diffusers tend to produce extremely harsh, hard light that washes people out and makes food at restaurants look awful. Seriously, don't use flash if you're taking a photo of your food in a dark restaurant. Just don't. Eat your food. Come back at lunch.

Learn to use external flash

I learnt recently to weaken your flash power (ideally with a diffuser) and increase your ISO to get a more evenly lit shot, instead of that clubbing photo spotlight effect. Saved my life! Knowing how to control light is the next step  

Adjust your white balance

If you're shooting in tungsten (yellow) or fluorescent (blue) lighting, make sure you adjust your white balance in your camera, ideally, or in editing. So many people upload yellowed photos that could be adjusted to look better just with a slider!

Avoid spotlights

Those spotlights built into ceilings? Don't stand under them or get your guests to stand under them unless you're going for the 'horror movie ghost' effect. Even lighting is the key to a good portrait photo.


COMPOSITION

  • Rule of thirds, white space and look for shapes

  • Rule of thirds is a good starting point for learning about more dynamic composition. Always pay attention to the textures, colours and shapes in your photo. Human eyes tend to enjoy symmetry and leading lines so be aware of how walls, lines and patterns in the background can affect the mood.

    Flatlays mean that everything is a subject so rules of composition and white space apply! Make sure things are evenly spaced apart and pay attention to ensure the colours work together and one section isn't dominating another.

  • Pick a subject

  • This sounds so obvious but it's easy to forget as a beginner! This tends to be worse on phone cameras because everything is in focus, meaning you don't even have a nice bokeh (blur) in the background to tell you what the main 'point' of the photo is. The eyes should know where to focus on, or should at least have 'lines' that it can follow and focus on if there isn't an actual object (or person) standing in the shot

  • MIND YOUR BACKGROUNDS

  • Busy backgrounds can distract the viewer from the subject of the photo. Try to avoid backgrounds that are multicoloured, especially when they’re in non-complementary shades. Many graffiti tunnel shots can look busy and chaotic when not shot properly. Find backgrounds that have complimentary colours to your subject if possible and try to limit your palette to a handful of colours. 'Clean', solid backgrounds help to emphasise the subject.

    If your subject is the foreground, the background should complement it - in shape, colour and lighting. If the background is the main idea, consider using silhouettes in the foreground to focus the eye and emphasise the scale of the background.  

Exclude, crop out or photoshop out any objects in the background that may distract the viewer from the subject. If your subject has dark hair, don't put them against dark backgrounds that might hide/cover that shape.